Why It Will Be More Difficult Than Ever for Rafael Nadal to Win the French Open

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 23, 2014

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning his match against France's Gilles Simon at the Italian open tennis tournament in Rome, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

The 2014 French Open draw is out, and Rafael Nadal has no choice but to battle through a tough lineup. Roland Garros is his territory, his passion and the foundation to his all-time legacy. Nobody in the history of tennis understands more about what it will take to win this title than the King of Clay. After all, he does hold eight Musketeers' Cups.

But this will be Nadal’s most difficult attempt to win the French Open.

There are rising opponents in a deeper, more emboldened ATP tour. His rival Novak Djokovic may now be the favorite to win the French Open, and players such as Stanislas Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori have shown they have the tools and confidence to battle the Spanish warrior.

In the end, it’s still all about Nadal, and this is where there are concerns and questions. Can he flip the switch to Retro Nadal, or will he be more vulnerable to the rest of the field?


Navigating the Draw

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First-round opponent Robby Ginepri should pose little problems for Nadal. He played a famous semifinal match at the 2005 U.S. Open, falling to Andre Agassi, but this is 2014. The veteran has been mired in many qualifying matches and is ranked No. 275.

The danger really begins in the second round. Nadal will likely face potential star Dominic Thiem. The young Austrian has a powerful game and has been growing with rapid strides in 2014. He defeated Wawrinka at Madrid, and Thiem looked like a younger version of Wawrinka. He plays with bold strokes and can hit through the court, something that can trouble Nadal, especially if he forgets the moment.

The third round could see No. 30 Vasek Pospisil, a talented young Canadian who is struggling at this time. Leonardo Mayer or Teymuraz Gabashvili are possibilities, but neither figure to threaten Nadal.

There could be more tests in the fourth round. Looming large is fellow Spaniard and No. 21 Nicolas Almagro, who broke through at Barcelona by defeating Nadal last month. Almagro has the power and clay-court game to battle Nadal tooth and nail. In the past, he has often collapsed versus Nadal with riskier shots and self-destructive tendencies, but he has every right to feel confident now.

The other fourth-round possibility and obstacle is No. 16 Tommy Haas. The veteran is adept on any surface, and he defeated Wawrinka at Rome. Nadal would love a quick start if he faces Haas, because the German has finished off several big matches in his career.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 09:  David Ferrer of Spain and Rafael Nadal of Spain pose ahead of their mens' singles final match during day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 9, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The quarterfinals could set up the dangerous Grigor Dimitrov or the relentless David Ferrer. Nadal crushed Dimitrov at the Rome semifinals, but the young Bulgarian has had competitive matches versus Nadal in the past. He has a big forehand, quick defense and a flair for the dramatic. It's possible he could break through versus Nadal.

No. 5 Ferrer has historically been owned by Nadal. He typically does not have the power to hit through his esteemed compatriot, but he produced a gem at Monte Carlo to defeat Nadal. He took advantage of short balls, good angles and a lackluster performance. If Nadal is not playing well, it could end here.

Clay-courter Santiago Giraldo is also playing well and a long shot for the quarterfinals. He was a finalist at Barcelona and can hit flat and take chances. It's doubtful he could overcome Nadal, but stranger things have happened.

If Nadal advances, as expected, to the semifinals he could face possible surprises in Fabio Fognini, Richard Gasquet or Fernando Verdasco. But it's far more likely that Andy Murray or Wawrinka will be waiting. Murray will need to keep building on his sensational quarterfinals match at Rome, of which he led Nadal 4-2 in the third set before falling. If he gets all the way to the semifinals, he could be in the kind of groove to pose a challenge.

The semifinal match most want to see is Nadal vs. Wawrinka. Nadal lost the Australian Open final and was outgunned in the early going, down a set and a break before his back injury flared up. Wawrinka's aggressive mentality and powerful strokes have proven formidable when he is in the zone.

But Wawrinka is no slam dunk to reach the finals. The Swiss has been inconsistent after Monte Carlo and will need to put together a strong run once again.

Nadal will be the favorite to get through this part of the field, but he will likely have to survive a match or two. If he wins out to the finals, he faces his greatest challenge, the indomitable Djokovic.


The Djokovic Problem

Nobody is hungrier than Djokovic. Maybe his feeble finish in the 2013 U.S. Open final did not sit well with him. Since, he has not only been the best player in tennis, but he has dominated Nadal in four head-to-head title matches.

And this is not enough for Djokovic. He has put all his energy and drive into winning the French Open, exclaiming his desire to win it. Many now believe he is the favorite, including Greg Rusedski’s analysis in Sky Sports:

Obviously [Djokovic] is the favourite going in and I think he'll play that psychological battle rather than last year when he announced that 'this is the most important thing for me, winning the French Open.

Djokovic is already a modern legend, and he is a technical matchup nightmare for Nadal:

  1. He takes advantage of Nadal’s positioning four meters behind the baseline by coercing shorter returns. He has successfully evolved his hard courts play onto clay.
  2. He hits with flatter and harder pace, forcing Nadal to run down defensive and corner shots. It’s more difficult for the Spaniard to control the court with his heavy topspin.
  3. He continues to think and play more creative tennis. From the first shot or two of each point, he is looking to shorten the points or win out with intelligent patience.
  4. He punishes Nadal’s second serves.
  5. He can match Nadal’s intangible abilities of mental toughness and physical endurance. Right now, his confidence is higher than Nadal’s.

Go to Google and type in “Nadal confidence.” Every media outlet from ESPN to Sky Sports has flooded the internet with reports and theories of Nadal’s plummeting confidence. Many of them trace this to the Australian Open final, his back injury and loss to Stanislas Wawrinka. Well into the clay-court season, it’s a running series of critical commentary like the analyses for Breaking Bad.


Keys for French Open Title No. 9

Nothing less than Retro Nadal will win the title, and maybe this is not enough. Last year he was down one break in the fifth set of the French Open semifinal versus Djokovic. He rallied to win, but Djokovic is playing much better in 2014, and Nadal is not playing his best tennis.

The 11th hour is near, and Nadal will need a leap forward to defend his title. Can he snap into French Open mode 2008? Perhaps, but it’s a tall order.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

Nadal must first look to destroy his opponents in the opening week. He must flex his muscles with dominant performances; a few straight-sets wins would be ideal. It would send a message to the field, but more importantly bolster his own belief.

He must also be ready to change plans. In the past, he could stand four meters behind the baseline and win with his margin of safety and a steady diet of racket-busting topspin. This will not work against players who can hit through the court. It’s not out of the question for Thiem to turn into 2009 Robin Soderling.

In the second set of the Andy Murray match in Rome, Nadal flashed the kind of versatility he will need when he gets in trouble: Hit the forehand up the line more often. He also employed this tactic more often and successfully in winning the first set of the Rome final versus Djokovic.

In short, Nadal must look at the blueprint to his 2013 North American titles. He was willing to come into the baseline, take initiative and flatten out several shots. And this will be effective with the right timing. He will also recognize when to squeeze out opponents with his more vertical attack.

The other part of his success last summer was holding serve. His first-serve variety and percentage was outstanding. He kept his opponents off balance and often set up for finishing shots. He also did not allow his opponents to feast on a banquet of second serves. On clay, there will be more service break exchanges, but Nadal must serve above 70 percent on first serves to control his subsequent attack.

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

Nadal has long-thrived with the underdog mentality to track down every ball and force his opponents into mistakes. He is the master of winning pressure games because of his margin of consistency. Sprinkle in a few great shots and watch his efficiency rise while his opponent shrinks. He can still create this effect.

Until somebody beats Nadal at Roland Garros for only the second time in his career, Nadal will be the feature story of the French Open. That day will surely come, but it does not have to be in 2014.

We will soon find out.

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